Home > Opinions > The Kids Aren’t Alright

The Kids Aren’t Alright

The theory of Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner) is a vague memory for many of us, a relic of our first year psych class.  Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. Buzz words often bandied about in discussions of dog training and child rearing, occupations perhaps not as dissimilar as they first appear. 

In this new day and age of Education, our youth are exposed to all kinds of philosophies and theories about how to best shape and encourage our children into the generations of the future.  Most people would agree that rewarding good behaviour is the strongest motivator–imagine the number people eager to hold doors open for others if we were all paid $2 each time.  The philosophies of child rearing seem to discourage, as does our society, punitive measures in favour of rewards methods.  

Today rewards are given as encouragements for attempting something.  Admittedly, this is a necessary intermediate stage. The young should be encouraged and rewarding for trying new things, even if they are as terrifying as going to school all by their lonesomes.  The flaw, it recently occurred to me, is in the failure to shift this process.  

For the sake of clarity, let us discuss dog training for a moment before extrapolating to other thing. In training a dog to roll over, the first step is to reward any behaviour that resembles the desired result.  Treat for lying down. Treat for rolling onto the back. Treat for going completely around.  This is the way the behaviour is shaped and reinforced.  However, at some point treats will not be given for the attempted behaviour, rather for the result alone.  

It occurs to me, being a teacher, that the schooling and parenting has failed many of today’s students.  Rewarding the attempt has been the norm for many students throughout their careers.  Children are told consistently that if they try hard they will succeed.  They can be anything they want.  Such ideas can be inspiring for a toddler (for an almost painfully cliche example, just ask Obama).  However at some point students have to be taught that it is not the effort that is important but the result.  Returning failed tests and poorly written papers to students, their initial response through teary eyes is almost always “But I tried so hard!”  Students today just don’t seem to understand that effort does not necessarily produce good results.  It is inarguably a component of good results, but not the sole ingredient.  

But are the kids to blame?  Or are we as parents and educators the ones who have consistently rewarded the effort to blame?  To return to the somewhat inflammatory dog example, we have expected the dog to roll over, yet constantly given treats when it got halfway there.  Is it the dog’s fault it never learned?

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Categories: Opinions
  1. December 20, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Crap. I had plans to cover this same topic next week. Now what am I supposed to write about?

  2. January 24, 2010 at 2:24 am

    Well, This is pretty sweet posts, I totally agree and I am still interested in this.

  3. February 2, 2010 at 6:50 pm

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  4. March 8, 2010 at 1:51 am

    While this topic can be very challenging for most people, my belief is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do value that you’ve added pertinent and intelligent commentary here though. Very much thanks to you!

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